Fighting fire with fire in South Africa
28 September 2006
by Julie Thompson
Like getting your hands dirty? Fancy feeding a giraffe, handing out meat parcels to vultures, and then heading off to put out a raging bushfire on the African plains?
The Global Volunteer Network’s South Africa program made it all happen for Chris Fong, a 23 year old engineer from Atlanta, Georgia, when in June 2006, he volunteered on a game conservation reserve for four weeks.
‘My initial motivations were to get out and explore the world a little bit, and meet some people from different parts of the world that had different experiences and viewpoints on things. I had a co-worker of mine who was down there for a little bit, and he recommended that I check it out.’
His gamble paid off, and Chris was given an experience he won’t soon forget.
He worked on an award-winning game conservation reserve located in the Gauteng Province, which is home to a dozen or more species of native African wildlife and over 150 species of birds. Because it is a conservancy, rather than a reservation, it receives little financial support from the government, so the help of volunteers is crucial to its success.
Volunteers are required to work hard, and are kept busy five days a week. They have a wide range of jobs, including feeding the parks animals such as the giraffe, zebra, and many other animals.
Volunteers also participate in game management, including in-depth game assessment and anti-poaching practices, bird field studies, and collecting, transporting and distributing meat donations to the vultures, as well as any general handiwork around the park, such as fence repair and road maintenance.
Another job on the reserve, and perhaps the most important one, involves a combination of controlled fire-breaking, and fighting real fires. Brushfire is a crucial part of South Africa’s eco-system, as it helps to rejuvenate the earth by burning dead matter, to prepare for new growth. But, as the country’s population increases, and the wildlife becomes less migrant, controlled burning called fire breaking is now done, in order to make sure the burning process still occurs, without risk to life.
The South African bush fires can spread very quickly, destroying homes and taking lives of both animals and humans. Common causes include lightning, human carelessness and arson, and in fierce wind, fires in South Africa can move very fast. Lack of resources to fight the fires is a major problem, as there are no major voluntary firefighting organizations in South Africa, so fire control done by volunteers is a very important task.
‘We actually had a real brushfire when I was there,’ said Chris, ‘and I was amazed at how fast the situation escalated. We were just sitting around, hanging out, waiting to go to work, and we got news that there was an actual brushfire, and so we all just jumped in the cars, and drove over there, and within five minutes, the fire burned pretty much as far as you could see.’
Volunteers and locals attempt to put out the fires with a combination of water-filled backpacks, hoses and specially designed fire-beaters.
‘We got it under control eventually, but it was really an eye-opening experience to see how fast, and how little time you have to react, and it gives you an appreciation for why the work we are doing there is so important. These fires get so out of control in such a big area…I’d never seen anything like that, so it was pretty incredible.’
Another of Chris’s main jobs was to drive around and drop off the volunteers and other staff around the park.
‘On the reserve, really there’s no paved roads, just a bunch of dirt trails, so one of the main things I got to do was drive the old Land Rover around. I had a lot of fun with that. I don’t have any kind of real off-road driving experience, I guess, but that was a really fun thing to do, even though the Land Rover did break down quite a bit.’
Volunteering provided Chris with the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone and experience a new way of life, all the while making a valuable contribution to South Africa’s environment. But his trip was not without its challenges.
‘The biggest challenge was being so far out of my normal element,’ says Chris. ‘When you work with people in the U.S, they have similar viewpoints…I’m an engineer, and I feel very comfortable in my job every day, so traveling half-way round the world to work with people I’ve never met before, and to do things I’ve never done before, that was the best part of the whole experience. But it was also the biggest challenge, because it was so different, so new, that I had to think on my feet while I was there.’
Volunteers have weekends to explore South Africa, which can range from exploring neighboring Kruger National Park to try and spot the ‘big 5’ (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino), to doing a wine tour, hiking in the mountains, or visiting a local beach.
Chris volunteered during South Africa’s winter, which means sunny, crisp days averaging at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but very cold nights, dropping to freezing point. Winter provides a much more comfortable climate for those sensitive to the heat, as compared to an African summer.
‘I got a kick out of that,’ laughs Chris, ‘because when I got back, everyone said ‘wow, I thought you’d be a lot more tanned.’
South Africa is a unique country, as it is home to some of the world’s most fascinating wildlife, but it also home to huge amounts of unemployment, poverty and crime, and some of the worst statistics in the world. Even though apartheid, a system of racial segregation which discriminated against non-whites, was overthrown in 1994, South Africa is still suffering from the effects. According to Global Insight
Chris and the other volunteers visited Soweto, a town next to South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg, and were quick to discover that the country is not one big wildlife safari. Chris was about to undertake what he could only describe as ‘an emotional rollercoaster’.
‘One minute we were having beers and joking around with the locals at the popular bar, The Rock. The next minute, we were walking through a squatters’ camp, where people live in shacks made of corrugated steel, scrap wood, and chicken wire,’ said Chris.
Soweto is an urban area, mainly consisting of black South Africans, and is one of the poorest areas in Johannesburg. Problems in Soweto include high unemployment, overcrowding, and poor infrastructure, and only 20% of the houses can afford to have electricity.
Chris and the other volunteers had brought some supplies for some of the Soweto people, which they handed out door to door. A small gesture, but one which would no doubt have been greatly appreciated by the community, and given the volunteers an insight into life in an African slum.
‘I was equally struck by the attitude of the people as I was by their living conditions,’ Chris said. ‘Nearly everyone we encountered had a smile on their face and seemed very upbeat about life. They were all very glad to see us and the kids were especially excited about the lollipops, pens, pencils, and notebooks that we bought for them. Many hugged us and wanted to pose with us for pictures.’
It is all to easy to simply stick to the tourist path in countries like South Africa, but Chris was able to visit the slums of Soweto, a city of three million, and really see what life is like for the poorest of poor.
A highlight for Chris was getting to know the other volunteers, and really getting to make a difference, not to mention the South African people.
‘We interacted with a lot of people from South Africa, and they were all really friendly, and they seemed like they were really happy to have us there. We actually felt like we made a contribution.’
Chris is keen to advise others to volunteer, and stresses the need to make sure it happens.
‘What I did was, I made the decision I wanted to go, and just bought a plane ticket and did it. My advice is that there are so many reasons to not do it, that if you let yourself just dwell on all the negatives, you’ll never go.’
‘I think a lot of people get too caught up in why they can’t do it,’ said Chris, ‘and I’d say think about why you can, and why you should, and then just make it happen.’